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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride

DVDS: Crude, The Informant!, Alexander The Last

The highlight of this week’s DVD releases is Criterion’s Make Way For Tomorrow(Criterion, $30), a beautiful, essentially forgotten melodrama from Leo McCarey. I have strong, fond memories of it, but haven’t seen the DVD. Tag Gallagher’s essay for the release is here. Below: Crude, The Informant!, Alexander The Last.
Crude awakening [*** 1/2]
Berlinger © Ray Pride.jpgTURN THE TAP, WATER COMES, FLIP A SWITCH FOR LIGHT: pull up to the pump before driving to the discount grocery for the week’s dinners. We take delivery systems for granted, the social and economic structures that allow for, if not peace of mind, for “out of mind.” The genius of Joe Berlinger’s muckraking, muck-steeped Crude (First Run Features, $25) is that his clear, patient eye, taking a specific ecological tragedy to suggest the failure of systems, through the filthy work of extracting oil from beneath the earth’s surface, the almost-inevitable despoiling of water and other resources, and courtroom systems that pit international conglomerates, lawyers and locals against each other. Crude? “Texas Tea”? It doesn’t just bubble up like in “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
Three years in the making, Crude examines a $27 billion class action suit against alleged pollution filed by indigenous Ecuadorian residents, the Cofón Indians, 30,000 strong, in the Amazon against Chevron Oil, successor to Texaco (after 2001). They charge that eighteen billion gallons of wastewater polluted the land and rivers of an oil patch roughly the size of Rhode Island from 1970 to 1990. Rashes, birth defects, leukemia and other cancers followed. A “death zone” of pollution lingers. Bureaucrats interfere. Officials delay. The law is a labyrinth. The case has lingered fitfully over sixteen years and no end is in sight. Berlinger gauges a vast river of litigation and allegation: Amazonian, yes. But Berlinger’s tack differs from the comic outrage of a Michael Moore, say: this is classical reportage, not “Petroleum: A Love Story.”

While Crude appears to be on the side of nature against corporate intrigues, Chevron is given its chance to present its side. But the opposing images of damage to the land versus the corporation in its gleaming towers, make it seem less Goliath than David, as it works to shift responsibility for the chaos to any other entity, including the national petroleum company and earlier legal compacts. Berlinger cleanly deciphers the strategies and tactics of the opposing sides.
Still, that gallon of gas at the self-serve pump leaves a mess in its wake. The world is not simple. Berlinger, as in the post-vérité documentaries he co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky, like Brother’s Keeper and the Paradise Lost documentaries, has the perspective and tenacity of an investigative journalist but the image-making cinematic skills of a gifted filmmaker. (Even their Metallica documentary, Some Kind Of Monster, collected evidence through observation. We watch, the films say, and perhaps you will see.)
As documentaries mutate and proliferate, anecdote and personal experience is nowadays sometimes elevated over the act of eyewitness. Yet “Crude” functions as well as a lucid procedural, malfeasance and outrage alternating with the clarity of fiction, deciphering layer after layer of what otherwise offer only confusion and frustration. The elemental contrast is damning: corporate claims are matched against images of ruined jungle and water gleaming with rainbow slicks of spillage. The horrible thought appears and persists: the making of one world grows from the unmaking of another. Inconvenient truth, yes. [Joe Berlinger photo by Ray Pride]
The Corn Identity [*** 1/2]
STATELY, PLUMP MARK WHITACRE BOUNDS THROUGH THE FRAME WITHIN FRAMES of rooms in hotels and corporate offices in The Informant! (Warner, $28) like a man whose racing thoughts propel him ever forward, his near-pompadour of hair ever upward.
In Steven Soderbergh’s lovingly batshit comedy about corporate conspiracy and whistle-blowing at Midwestern agricultural combine Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) in the 1990s, the storytelling moves at a velocity past a couple of the Oceans movies, along with a voice-over of comic static from biochemist and corporate vice-president Whitacre’s (Matt Damon) head. Whitacre becomes a mole for the FBI in what appears to be a price-fixing set-up with Japanese competitors in the market for lysine, an amino acid derived from corn, seemingly outraged by the liberties taken by his bosses. Sounds deadly dull? It’s like an ADD edition of “The Insider,” everything that would possibly be glum imbued with a rosy, optimistic, hopeful charge. Whitacre’s brain crackles with non-sequiturs; his inability to focus at any given moment is what makes the movie both strange and eccentrically funny. White this reportedly under-$25 million comedy may be described by some as a straightforward movie by the experimentally-minded Soderbergh, it may be his most cracked, fractured film since Schizopolis. It’s high-fructose mania. Overlapping, contradicting, questioning, reassuring, it makes you wonder for the man’s sanity almost immediately.
Long-quiet Marvin Hamlisch provides a jaunty score, elevated Muzak after a 1970s fashion, much like the main credits and title cards, which could make Quentin Tarantino stiff from 100 yards. Its anachronism and gosh-darned jauntiness might seem unsuited until we realize that like Jon Brion’s score for Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, it’s part and parcel of being trapped inside the delusional adventure ride in Whitacre’s bursting dome. At moments, the way his internal monologue veers into matters sexual at moment’s he’s supposed to be focused, such as in a hotel meeting room while wired for sound, comes close to Gasper Noe’s I Stand Alone, in which its angry, violent, racist fury of a central character suffered what the director called his “infernal radio.” “Who’d make up someone named Regina?” he asks himself, leaving a meeting where his honesty has been questioned. “That’s the name of the capital of Saskatchewan!” (Which sounds like a line from Schizopolis, except the gibberish seems to ear meaning.)
Whitacre, superficially, is sunnier, even when bursting with self-righteous proclamations like a litany of how corn is in almost every foodstuff in the American larder that ends with the splutter, “Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime before they finish breakfast!” But the rapidly cut scenes with Damon’s pudge-boy figure darting through offices and corridors and parking lots embody mania. Soderbergh, working as usual as his own cinematographer, shoots with his now-favored RED digital camera, and the intensely stylized look of The Informant! goes beyond The Girlfriend Experience. Technically, this look probably couldn’t even been considered as recently as a year ago. Soderbergh pushes limits with the stylization.
The design is stripped down yet more iconic than merely functional: Whitacre paces back-and-forth in front of a bust of Lincoln; another executive’s office seems like a preschool, with a nameplate, three orange #2 pencils in a cup and charts on the wall on 8×10 sheets of pastel-colored paper. St. Louis is indicated by a distant glimpse of the Freedom Arch and the edge of an Anheuser-Busch sign. The shorthand extends to the tic of framing a female character so that she’s obscured in a scene by a product that symbolizes what their work has brought them: in the case of Sasha Grey’s escort, an expensive sofa; in the case of Whitacre’s wife, a pair of brown paper IGA grocery bags. Corporate campuses and motel parking lots seem deserted, visited only by scattering leaves.
Even by daylight, scenes settle into the coral, umber and deep orange hues that sodium vapor light often affords in uncorrected digital photography. It’s not the hard, chalky fluorescence of Gordon Willis’ memorably lighting for Alan Pakula’s All The President’s Men. Still, 1990s PC monitors glow green. Low-angled traveling shots capture hanging fluorescent lights, yet Soderbergh’s more interesting in the geometry, a mad foreshortened mass above the characters’ heads like a violent crack in the sky. The world outside is a burst of haze and white fuzz. It’s like a visual hum. We’re in Whitacre’s melty, buzzy brain. Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns’ nervy adaptation of Kurt Eichenwald’s 2000 nonfiction book comes courtesy of Michael London’s Groundswell Production and Participant Media, producers always in search of socially-conscious, grown-up stuff. What Soderbergh’s in search of is a parable about how we convince ourselves there’s meaning in what we call we work.
Swanberg the next [***]
Joe Swanberg (five features, overlapping web series) premièred his latest, Alexander The Last (MPI-IFC, $25) at SXSW 2009, an elliptical, 71-minute story about a romantic triangle involving two sisters. Since his first feature, “Kissing on the Mouth,” there’s been a provisional, unfinished character to his work, as if he were discovering both what stories to tell and how to tell them as he went along, not “re-inventing cinema,” to be sure, but working with an attitude and an ambition that might find a voice. In Alexander, co-produced by Noah Baumbach, and using professional actors for the first time, there’s solid evidence of growth, and room for more.

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“Ten years ago at Telluride, I said on a panel that theatrical distribution was dying. It seemed obvious to me. I was surprised how many in the audience violently objected: ‘People will always want to go to the movies!’ That’s true, but it’s also true that theatrical cinema as we once knew it has died. Theatrical cinema is now Event Cinema, just as theatrical plays and musical performances are Events. No one just goes to a movie. It’s a planned occasion. Four types of Event Cinema remain.
1. Spectacle (IMAX-style blockbusters)
2. Family (cartoon like features)
3. Horror (teen-driven), and
4. Film Club (formerly arthouse but now anything serious).

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